It’s a lot like fishing. You can bait the hook and cast into the water, but nothing will bite unless the conditions and timing are just right. And even then, who knows how big the fish will be.
Such has been the fate of the Mint Farm Industrial Park.
The Mint Farm has lived up to high hopes in a few ways. The city is close to selling its final shares to a developer with different kinds of “high” hopes in mind that could triple the number of jobs there.
But the park, born of a need to diversify the town’s employment base as the timber industry was tumbling 20 years ago, has frustrated aspirations in other ways.
Several industries have invested millions in their acreage, which means a return on investment for the city. But they didn’t turn out to be big employers. Not as big as the up to 7,000 jobs city leaders heralded when the first businesses showed up to the Mint Farm in 1997.
Combined, the four employers at the park — Epson Toyocom, Flexible Foam, Puget Sound Energy and PNW Recycling, which bought the defunct Tri-County Truss site in 2013 — employ around 90 people.
Tri-County Truss, part of Woodniville Lumber, folded when the housing industry took down the rest of the economy in 2008. There were hopes for as many as 500 jobs at the company, but the recession had other plans.
It’s an example of the kind of cycle that the 360-acre Mint Farm has gone through several times in its two decades. Things have gone from booming to bleak seemingly overnight.
“When I moved to Longview in 2005, it was a good cycle then, and it wasn’t long after that Woodinville committed to building their facility,” Assistant City Manager Dave Campbell said last week. “I remember thinking, ‘This place is magical, it just happens.’ Then 2008 happened.”
For Longview, the bait for developers centers on the huge, low-cost tracts of industrial-zoned land ready with high-capacity sewer, water and electric hookups. Plus there’s the willing and waiting labor force and access to rail, freeways and a deepwater port. It ought to be a dream come true for potential businesses, but city officials said a combination of competition and economic conditions has kept the park from filling up.
When the Mint Farm was conceived in the ’90s, the economy was looking up but there was an obvious need to bring in more industries in the face of shrinking payrolls of the area’s major businesses. Attempts to coax private investment failed, so Longview’s leaders looked to do what many port authorities do — they bought the land themselves and invested $14 million in streets, lights, pipes and wires needed to lure industry.
“There was a time when the mantra was build it and they will come, but you had to (build) it,” Sacha said.
He said the city actually had to sue itself, in a way, in order to clear the path to develop the land for prospective buyers.
A judge at the time ruled that Longview couldn’t hold onto the land and lease it — which ports are able to do. Some businesses would rather lease, though city officials have said many more want to buy.
Bonds sold to finance construction of the Mint Farm are set to be paid off in 2034, when the city could start reaping profits from property and other taxes generated at the site. Right now, taxes from Mint Farm tenants go straight to bond payments. There is potential to pay off the debt as early as 2024 and apply that money elsewhere, should every lot fill up in the near future.
And the city hopes that might be the case.
Last summer, City Council members approved a sale of four Mint Farm lots with little public discussion. (Governments can hold closed sessions to negotiate real estate transactions.)
The proposed buyer is Camas-based developer Barrcorp, which has plans to build 400,000 square feet of warehouse space for recreational marijuana growing and processing businesses. Though the deal has been pushed back several times, the city is confident the sale will close.
“They have quite a significant investment already in some of the research and evaluations they’ve done,” Sacha said. “It’s a sizeable amount.”
What’s more, one of the lots closed last year, and the city has negotiated a higher price on the remaining lots — $0.25 more per square foot on two sites and a flat $2,500 more on a third. That’s in exchange for moving the closing date to the end of March.
The lots were all originally scheduled to close by November, and the three that remain missed a second deadline Jan. 1.
Developer Aaron Barr told The Daily News last fall the marijuana businesses could mean a $50 million investment in the site and up to 300 jobs.
He may have more uses for the land in mind than just recreational marijuana, Community Development Director John Brickey said. Brickey added the designs for the buildings are “upscale” and could certainly serve a big array of indoor-focused businesses.
Barr could not be reached for comment last week.
Should those lots sell, the city would only have one remaining lot it needs to unload.
However, Weyerhaeuser Co. owns what is known as “Phase II” of the Mint Farm — 133 acres of buildable land east of Weber Avenue, not counting the wetlands mitigation land in the northeast corner of the park it owns on top of that.
The company poured $10 million in infrastructure investments into the land, according to city data, but so far no industries have shown up.
“When we made the investment several years ago, we viewed it as an economic growth opportunity in Longview. That’s kind of been our outlook for the property,” Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez said.
He said that while the company won’t speculate on prospective buyers, the land is being widely marketed.
“(There is) no preference for any particular industries, we’re looking for folks domestic and international. We’re not limiting or favoring particular sectors,” Chavez said Friday.
Ted Sprague, the president of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, said he’s optimistic about the future of the site, both for the city’s holdings and Weyerhaeuser’s.
“We had more inquiries in the past two quarters than we had in the past three years almost,” he said. “The economy is really percolating right now.”
Finding the right fit — an employer providing an abundance of family-wage jobs in an industry the community will accept — has been a struggle, but one the city is lucky to be able to have.
Public Works Director Jeff Cameron said he remembered a proposal to house 10,000-gallon cucumber storage tanks at the Mint Farm. That would have provided little or no tax revenue and no permanent jobs, so the city sent a “no” right back.
“I believe over the years there were a few, not many, industries that approached the city with a desire to locate that might have been turned away, so to speak, because they weren’t the right fit,” Sacha said. That list included a solid waste incinerator and a few low-wage businesses.
“Some of the nice things about publicly owned ports and industrial parks is that you can choose” who is granted admission, Sprague said.
Though it would be great for the local economy to see the entire Mint Farm at capacity as soon as possible, Campbell said it’s more likely the industrial park will be filled in the next five to 10 years.
Just like fishing, development at the Mint Farm remains a game of patience.